Even among experienced travelers, the ‘stans (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan) are unknown territory. They have little cultural penetration in the west, so while many of us can close our eyes and envision Bangkok, Tokyo or Singapore, we can’t necessarily do the same for Tashkent – the capital of Uzbekistan. Besides the normal concerns we all have about traveling abroad, there are added apprehensions around venturing into such unknown territory – what to wear, how to behave and what to expect. So, let us allay your concerns with a crash course on how to navigate the etiquette and niceties of Uzbek lifestyle.
From Tashkent to Bukhara, Samarkand to Khiva, Uzbekistan is home to a fascinating history of millennia, spent under ever-changing regimes and occupations from the Samanids, the Persians and Genghis Khan, to the Soviet Union. A through-route of The Silk Road, the country was a thriving trade hub, and bazaars still bustle in the cities today – among ancient Islamic minarets and elaborately designed palaces. Meanwhile, the countryside is dramatic and diverse, from the rocky Tien-Shan Mountains, to the lush and verdant Fergana Valley. A combination of city-dwellers and those who live rurally, native Uzbek people make up 70% of the population, and their lifestyles and customs are a mix of religious and cultural norms, and traditions and codes – with both ancient and modern roots. Under Soviet rule, some Uzbeks had considerable contact with Russians, but less commonly have they had experience with visitors from the west. Modern Uzbeks are proud of their country, which has been autonomous and independent since 1991, and a deeply-ingrained culture of hospitality makes them warm and welcoming to visitors who are interested in learning more about their country and its intricacies. Follow our five Uzbek etiquette tips, so you can embark on your adventure feeling comfortable and confident.
Tip One: If you are a man, shake hands with any male who extends his hand to you – but as a woman, remain still
Though this may seem exclusionary at first blush, it is intended as a sign of respect, with the man keeping his distance and not presuming to make physical contact. More usually, women are instead greeted by men with a right hand on the heart, accompanied by a slight head nod. Among close friends greetings may include a triple kiss on alternate cheeks,whether male or female (but not across genders), and women may greet each other with a big hug. For any handshaking, gloves should be removed.
Uzbeks have large extended families, and they are involved and important in their lives. Senior members of the family – and even the community – are shown special respect in a number of ways. A suffix is added their the name: –opa (for a woman) and –aka (for a man), or if you do not know the person’s name, you can simply use “Opa” or “Aka” to refer to them politely. When addressing those older than you, it is polite to use the pronoun “siz”, which is also used for the plural “you”. There is also a suffix for loved ones, which you would rarely need as a tourist, but would certainly hear among friends
Tip Two: Don’t be in a hurry to finish your plate of food
Uzbek people are unfailingly hospitable and upon entering an establishment for a meal, you’ll be warmly welcomed. While restaurant dining adheres to most of the same etiquette and niceties as the west, there are a number of customs to be observed when visiting an Uzbek household, some before you even have food in front of you.
It is common to be invited for tea and to find yourself amid a full-blown banquet; be prepared and, if possible, bring some small souvenirs or sweets for children of your host. Before entering an Uzbek house, remove your shoes – the person who greets you will indicate where you are to put them – and the further from the door, the more respected you are.
Your hosts will cook and present everything they have in stock when you visit, and when your plate is empty, it will always be refilled – so take your time. This tradition dates back to the era of The Silk Road. In its cities, strategically placed along this bustling trade route, the locals would appeal to caravans of traveling traders to stop and rest a while. To build good business relationships, the locals would entertain their guests sumptuously, welcoming them with a table covered with delicious delicacies. Dinners lasted for hours and plates were never empty, since a banquet enjoyed together was a good way to set the stage for negotiations. Though the days of lavishing food on your guests in order to close trade deals is long gone, tradition still states the table must always be covered with food, so it is likely that the cold meats will already be out upon your arrival. As a guest, wait to be seated by the host – usually the head of the family – and again, the further from the door, the more highly-honored a guest you are. Toasting is an important tradition at dinners. Everyone is served vodka in small cups and takes it in turns to be the toastmaster. It is customary to compliment the host, wish everyone present good prosperity and perhaps add a witty remark.
Tip Three: Never turn down an invitation
An invitation for tea and fresh fruits is common in Uzbekistan, and if at all possible, it should not be refused – to deny Uzbek people the chance to be hospitable can cause great offence. Indeed, traditionally, when a stranger arrives at an Uzbek household, he is first invited in and offered tea; only then does the host ask who the guest is and why he has come.
Tip Four: Never pay the first quoted price for anything
In Uzbek marketplaces, haggling is not only encouraged, but almost mandatory. The same goes for taxi drivers, who are renowned for overcharging, and it is important to agree a price before you get in to avoid confusion.
As for tipping, for waiters or porters at hotels and airports, one or two US dollars is sufficient. If you have a driver or guide who looks after you for a whole day, it is customary to tip around 20 to 30 dollars – depending on your satisfaction, of course.
Uzbek people you might meet in bazaars or villages are usually very happy to pose for photos with tourists, and there’s usually no need to tip them for it, but you should ask permission first.
Tip Five: A little modesty goes a long way
Uzbekistan is a secular state, and there are no strict rules or laws regarding dress, especially in the cities – where young people in particular have adopted western styles of dress. Having said that, society in general is relatively conservative, especially in rural areas, and caution should be taken to be respectful, especially in spiritual places. Modest clothing is preferable – if not expected – in churches, mosques and other religious spaces, where knees and shoulders should be covered.
In summary, Uzbek culture is relatively easy to navigate – perhaps surprisingly so. In general it pays to keep your wits about you when you are exploring, and your charms about you when being hosted. Thanks to the warmth and hospitality of the people, you are sure to be welcomed – just bring your appetite!